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- Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer to obtain information on Hillary Clinton. The development raises new questions about the extent to which Trump campaign officials interacted with Russian officials. Experts say the new revelations bring up a key question: Why Did Trump turn to a Russian national for potentially damaging information on Clinton?
Experts say the disclosure that President Donald Trump’s eldest son met with a Russian lawyer after being promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton raises new questions in the ongoing saga about Trump’s ties to Russia.
The New York Times reported over the weekend that Donald Trump Jr. met with the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, last year, weeks after his father clinched the Republican presidential nomination. Trump was joined at the meeting by Jared Kushner, his brother-in-law, and by Paul Manafort, who was the campaign manager at the time.
Veselnitskaya has strong ties to the Kremlin. She was married to a former deputy transportation minister of the Moscow region, and her clients have included Russian state-owned businesses.
In a statement to The Times on Saturday, Trump said it was a “short introductory” meeting that focused on an adoption program Russian President Vladimir Putin had cut off as a retaliatory measure against the Magnitsky Act, which blacklisted Russians suspected of human-rights abuses. Trump made no mention of Clinton.
In response to a story on Sunday that revealed his motivation for meeting Veselnitskaya, Trump issued a second statement.
“After pleasantries were exchanged, the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton,” it said. “Her statements were vague, ambiguous, and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”
Trump said she steered the conversation to the adoption program and the Magnitsky Act.
“It became clear to me that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting,” he said. It’s unclear whether Veselnitskaya actually provided the damaging information about Clinton.
The revelations ignited a firestorm, and Trump has defended himself since The Times’ stories. He tweeted with a hint of sarcasm on Monday: “Obviously I’m the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent. … Went nowhere but had to listen.” He also said he would comply if congressional investigators wanted to talk to him.
But experts say the question is not why Trump wanted damaging information on Clinton, but why he turned to a Russian national to obtain it.
A ‘devastating’ development
“These are pretty staggering admissions by Donald Trump Jr.,” said Andrew Wright, an associate professor at Savannah Law School. “He confirms that Trump’s son, son-in-law, and campaign chair met with a Russian lawyer for the express purpose of receiving damaging information about Trump’s political opponent in an American presidential election.”
Benjamin Wittes, the editor-in-chief of Lawfare, called the developments “devastating” and said that “it shows that the Trump folks were willing to cooperate with Kremlin in exchange for dirt on Hillary.”
Wittes also said Trump’s second statement to The Times indicated his “ONLY interest” in the meeting with Veselnitskaya “was the dirt the Russians might provide on Clinton.”
Donald Trump’s legal team said in a statement that “the president was not aware of and did not attend the meeting.”
Veselnitskaya also told The Times on Saturday that “nothing at all about the presidential campaign” was discussed, adding that she had “never acted on behalf of the Russian government” and “never discussed any of these matters with any representative of the Russian government.”
The Times’ stories, however, shed light on the first confirmed direct meeting between Donald Trump’s inner circle and a Russian national with ties to the Kremlin. And Donald Trump Jr.’s statements, regardless of the content of the meeting, “show intent – a clear-cut willingness to have Russian support – and they reveal specific actions undertaken to obtain it,” wrote Bob Bauer, who was a White House counsel to President Barack Obama.
The developments also added another layer to a question that has dogged the Trump administration since the president took office and is a focus of multiple congressional inquiries and an FBI counterintelligence investigation: Did the Trump campaign collude with Russia to tilt the 2016 election in his favor?
The clearest indication of intent so far
Whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia is a difficult question to answer, experts say, because the affirmative requires the establishment of intent – that members of Donald Trump’s inner circle, and possibly the president himself, knowingly worked with Russian operatives to damage Clinton’s candidacy and win the presidency. So far, a slew of media reports have hinted at the possibility of collusion, but experts say the weekend’s developments may be the clearest indication of intent so far.
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Donald Trump Jr.’s assertion that he gained no meaningful information on Clinton from his meeting with Veselnitskaya is irrelevant, Bauer wrote, because “the president’s son is admitting that the campaign arranged the meeting solely to get this information.”
At the very least, the meeting points to Trump’s motive, said Jens David Ohlin, an associate dean at Cornell Law School and an expert on criminal law.
“In other words, it demonstrates that at least some members of the Trump campaign were interested in procuring damaging information about Clinton and were willing to meet with Russians to get it,” he said.
Trump said on Saturday that he was “asked to attend the meeting by an acquaintance” but did not know the name of the person he was meeting. Jason Miller, a CNN political commentator and the Trump campaign’s communications adviser, echoed that defense Monday morning.
Though it may be plausible that Trump, Kushner, and Manafort didn’t know who they were meeting before they accepted, they would have become aware “when she came in and introduced herself,” Bauer wrote.
And although current information indicates Veselnitskaya had no valuable information on Clinton to provide to Trump and used it as a pretext for the meeting, Ohlin said the fact that Trump surrogates took the meeting raised the question of whether they met with others who were closer to Russia’s effort to meddle in the election.
These factors – that Trump met with a Russian national to obtain damaging information about a political opponent, and that the meeting was not subsequently disclosed – are “important points of evidence of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia,” Wright said.
“They go to intent,” he continued. “Trump’s inner circle was willing to obtain information from Russian foreign nationals in order to influence our election.”
The meeting also raises a host of other questions, including whether Veselnitskaya was acting as an agent of the Russian state and whether the meeting triggered further actions by Veselnitskaya, other Russian operatives, or Trump campaign officials.
On Sunday, The Washington Post reported that the meeting was arranged by Rob Goldstone, a music publicist who represents the son of a wealthy Azerbaijani-Russian developer and is friendly with the Trump family. Goldstone told The Post that he arranged the meeting between Trump and Veselnitskaya at the behest of a Russian client, the Russian pop star Emin Agalarov. Goldstone said he attended the meeting along with Veselnitskaya.
Wright said that additional details that emerge in the coming months would be crucial in evaluating whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and if so, to what extent.